Prolegomenon to the Adventures of Ch?lde Phoenix
Perhaps you've heard an anecdote about a child named Cresencio who was skipping barefoot between hills of corn when a shallow bowl in the field, long turbulent with mutterings, broke into pieces. Cresencio spied a tongue of smoke, like the mockings of a demon; he bent, staring into the jagged mouth that was about to spatter the nearby trees with sparks and set his childhood on fire. Liquid stone shouldered through streets, plugging everything but the bell tower of a church. In a last indignity, after obliterating the houses of Cresencio's village with a relentless black confetti, the volcano stole its name: Paricutin, no longer home but a district of hell.
I like that story because it suggests that other children may be acquainted with metamorphosis.
The first memory that I can conjure quite clearly is one of lying on the glass box in the claustral living room, staring at the girl. She seemed to emanate a faint lunar glow, and I was fascinated by her perfection--the fine, long eyelashes, the smear of lavender on the eyelids, the curls that were as cursive and tendrilous as a line of embroidered calligraphy. She wore a white batiste dress, finely ruched, with pearl buttons and handmade buttonholes. The useless slippers had been crafted from tatting, and were tied with ribbons of white grosgrain. Because of those clothes, I know the words for the old-fashioned magics of stitchery and lace.
My mother had designed the gown and the slippers and was a marvelous needlewoman. Careful about how the girl was presented, she showed me at length how to clean and polish the glass so that it would not become marred by scratches. Once she caught me scattering purple violets and the paler ones they call Confederates on the lid of the chest.
"What are you--"
She rushed forward, gown trailing behind her. I saw that she had gone into the garden, something that she did only rarely; the hem of her robe was starred with seedheads. It was a terrible moment, not just because she had left the vicinity of the girl and gone out under the sky--something that felt forbidden to me then--but because of the disorder in her face. Afterward I was haunted by an inability to recapture her expression. Even now I cannot determine: was it a scream without sound, a blankness of shock, an anger?
My mother dropped to her knees by the case. Her hand stretched out above the glass.
"What a good boy you are." I heard the whisper before I saw any movement in her face, and I looked around as if to find some other source of judgment.
"Mother." I could hardly speak. I felt as though violet stems had spired up in the confines of my throat and flowered there.
She covered her face with both hands and cried--not as adults commonly cry in front of children, with a few parsimonious tears, but as a young girl might cry--with a cloudburst suddenly springing forth and suddenly ended.
As she dried her face on a sleeve, she repeated that I was "a good boy, the sweetest boy in the world."
She embraced me, letting her weight fall more and more on my shoulders until I was pushing with all my might against her. As I pressed my cheek against her neck, I felt indignant. A drop of my mother's perspiration splashed onto my arm. Why was it always kept so warm in the living room? It was stifling; as the minutes fell into--where? where did they go? into what crack in the earth's crust?--the flowers writhed and shriveled into dark French knots.
When my pretty mother rose and left, my face and arms were damp. I didn't know what to feel--or, I felt many things but didn't know how to name them.
In childhood, it is impossible to appreciate the passionate heart and naiad youth of one's mother. And when we are old enough to do so, she has grown worn and been diminished by the effort of bringing us into some uneasy compromise with the world--that, at the very least--and of helping us to adapt to this kingdom that we do not choose and will be later made to leave, generally in a way and at an hour not of our desiring. My mother's library once whispered these things to me, and now, some years later, I begin to see their truth.
"Mama! Where are you?"
In this way, I often called and called for her and had no answer.
Mother would pass through the western doors of the chamber, and when I searched, I could not find her. It seemed as if she had access to other realms where I could not go--perhaps translunary orbs where she might be a mother to another boy, where there might be girls who were not sealed into glass cases, where fathers were not obsessive. Even after I was given a key to the courtyard and had the freedom of its walks and the companionship of its cold statues, I could not make out where my mother went in her absences.
"Mama! Are you here? Don't hide from me--"
I forced open a door to an unfamiliar room, my steps slowing, my voice dying away. The syllables were eaten, I thought, by the plush curtains with heavy tassels, the flocked wallpaper, and the dense, deep carpets.
My feet moved uncertainly on the carpet; it was like walking on moss. And on the wood in between, my heels made an unexpected tapping noise that frightened me and made me look around in terror.
"Is anybody there?"
With a tin sword lashed to my belt, I wandered room after room, each lined with books, each with ladders spiraling into remote recesses of the ceiling: I simply assumed that there was a ceiling, somewhere past the weather that inhabited the heights and sometimes seemed to be shadows and at other moments, clouds. Once or twice I glimpsed faces peeping down at me--angels, perhaps, or demons. One evening I saw evenly spaced snowflakes twirl from the canopy, to lie unmelting on the antique Persian carpet.
"Mother, I want to show you something! Come here!"